The U.S. government yesterday won the right not to compensate William Kubrick for making him go deaf.
In an important legal victory for the Veterans Administration, the Supreme Court told Kubrick that he had waited too long to sue the Va hospital for the medical malpractice that caused his deafness, and it stripped him of a $320,000 damage award made by a lower federal court.
The decision ended a decade-long struggle for Kubrick that began when the Veterans Administration Hospital in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., improperly treated his Korean-war-related leg injury with a drug therapy that produced his deafness.
The VA at first tried to deny that he had any claim at all, even for increased veterans benefits, flasely telling him that his condition was caused by his civilian job as a machinist.
Finally, after Kubrick sued in July 1972 and it was determined that malpractice occurred, the government sought shelter in the two-year statute of limitations for such suits under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Kubrick, the government argued, was three years too late in taking action.
After failing to win its argument in a federal district court and the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the government took the case to the Supreme Court.
A doctor first informed Kubrick in January 1969 that the treatment with the drug neomycin might have been responsible for his deafness. Though he began pressing the Veterans Administration administratively, he brought no legal action at the time because, he said later, he was unaware that he had a case.
It was only in June 1971 that a second physician informed him he ought to consult a lawyer. Kubrick, and the lower courts, said the statute of limitations began running then.
By a 6-to-3 majority, however, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the statute of limitations began running in 1969, when Kubrick was first informed of the possible cause of his deafness, and so struck down his malpractice suit victory.
Justice Byron R. White, joined by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justices Potter Stewart, Harry A. Blackmun, Lewis F. Powell Jr. and William H. Rehnquist, said that Kubrick should have taken some action as soon as he was made aware of the cause of his deafness, even though he may not have been aware that negligence was involved.
"A plaintiff such as Kubrick, armed with the fact about the harm done to him, can protect himself by seeking advice in the medical and legal community. To excuse him from promptly doing so by postponing the accrual of his claim would undermine the purpose of the lmations statute, which is to require the reasonable diligent presentation" of legal claims, they said.
Justice John Paul Stevens, joined by Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. and Thrugood Marshall, dissented. They argued that the rule being replied by the majority -- that the plaintif should have quickly recognized a "doctor's failure to meet acceptable medical standards" and filed his suit, was both unfair and a wrong application of medical malpractice law.